How to increase your profits from your book by pirating it yourself
Ebook piracy is currently quite small, but there’s little doubt that it could someday be as big as music or movie piracy, especially with the e-book reader prices in freefall. Currently, transcribing is a painful collaborative process, but as publishers turn to selling digital versions, DRM-ripping could become as standard as DVD-ripping is.
I’m tempted to say that writers are more vulnerable than musicians were because they can’t go perform live and therefore use piracy to build a fanbase that will shell out money for a live experience, but that simply isn’t true. If you’re a horror fan, wouldn’t you pay good money to see and hear Stephen King talk about where fear comes from? TED releases free videos but can still charge $6000 for entry to the event. Alternatively, successful writers could sell articles to magazines and blogs, who’ll buy them to increase circulation or pageranks. I’m guessing there will eventually arise a model that allows popular writers to write full-time: pretty much what the current model does. Most writers don’t become popular in the first place, something that the spread of ebooks may rectify, just as MP3 enlarged the long tail for musicians.
Nonetheless, it isn’t as though MP3 killed legal music downloads. Apple’s very successful iTunes store sells millions of songs daily, with revenue shared between Apple, the music company and the musician. But why would someone shell out 99¢ to buy a song they can get for free?
When you buy something from iTunes, you’re guaranteed that it’s of good quality and will play well on your iPod. It’s also safer and – this is really important – very easy to find and download.
A similar logic could eventually apply for ebooks – most of the pirated ebooks (currently) available aren’t of good quality. The Optical Character Recognition (OCR) versions are the worst: the computer scans a page and converts the scan into text, with errors a plenty. Nonetheless, people who are money-poor will be willing to ignore these complications if they can get it for free (I read most of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series on my laptop this summer).
This creates a separating equilibrium: money-rich consumers download the legal easy-to-read DRM enabled version while money-poor consumers will download the low-quality version for free.
But there are pitfalls with this: how do you ensure this equilibrium will continue to exist? If the quality of illegal versions become better, people may switch to them. I bought several pirated pop-social science books – Nudge, Superfreakonomics, Outliers etc – this summer from pavement booksellers for Rs.50 – 100 ($1-$2). Having long been a consumer of pirated books I can testify that the quality of printing has greatly improved over the last three years. Missing pages, smudgy printing, thin see-through paper, all of which I can find in my older books, have disappeared from the “Delux” editions.
One way to beat competing high quality DRM-disabled ebooks would be to release a low-quality version yourself.
Yes, that sounds odd. But someone will create a zero-cost version sooner or later and pirating your own e-book ensures that the first book that goes online isn’t of good quality. I suspect that the first book that makes it to the torrents will become the one most downloaded: other people will be unlikely to put out digital zero-cost versions of your book once one already exists and is heavily downloaded.
Torrents are the Internets’ preferred way of distributing illegal files because the files are distributed over a large number of computers instead of a single server that the government can shut down. Exploit this by getting your publishers to buy a hundred computers and use them to seed the e-book. The more seeders there are, the more secure and speedy the download and the more people will download the file. (If purchasing a hundred computers seem excessive, point out that the publisher can A. Use the infrastructure for all future and published books at zero extra cost and B. Use the computers already in the office.)
How do you diminish the quality of the e-book? Remove illustrations. Use poor quality fonts and typography. Misspell words. Release a PDF file instead of an ePub version. The possibilities are endless. But don’t forget the tradeoff: people prefer a better quality zero-cost e-book to a poor quality one. The worse your version is, the more competition there will be. The better it is, the less likely they are to buy the original from Amazon.
A final word: there will always be those who are morally opposed to piracy. But I’ve noticed that they’re usually the ones who can afford the original.